Calculating Curbside Recycling's: Bottom Line

A little research can go a long way when expanding an existing curbside recycling program. While it may be difficult and time-consuming to pore over spreadsheets, slice through red tape and enlist both residential and municipal collaboration, the resulting smooth transition and improved diversion rates are worth the trouble.

Pricing plays a big part, and collection program operators and local jurisdictions that regulate the services and fees of franchised haulers must understand the financial impact of new services on residential rates before starting those services.

Tigard, Ore., a suburban municipality of 35,000 residents, located southwest of Portland, is one community that successfully assessed costs prior to starting a yard debris and scrap paper collection system and now is serving as a model for the rest of Washington County.

The city operates under a franchise system, regulating collection by assigning a service area to each hauler - Miller's, Pride or Schmidt - prescribing service levels, setting service rates and monitoring and controlling the rate of the collector's return. The city reviews operator costs and adjusts collection rates annually.

Metro, a regional government serving the three-county area, oversees solid waste planning and controls or operates waste transfer and disposal facilities throughout the Portland metropolitan region.

Both the state and Metro targeted yard debris recovery as a regional goal in 1990. The initial plan of using a yard debris depot in Washington County cities was scrapped in late 1993 in favor of curbside collection. As a result, these cities had to add curbside yard debris programs by mid-1994.

The recent experiences of other jurisdictions - such as Clackamas and Multnomah counties - helped Tigard plan, but many important design issues still had to be addressed, such as the new service's cost and rate impacts.

Also, the city realized that the diversion potential might not be great, because many residents already were using on-site composting or yard debris depots.

In early 1994, Tigard, with the help of Harding Lawson Associates (HLA), Portland, reviewed designs and estimated the costs of adding curbside yard debris service. After clarifying all requirements, reviewing other programs and assessing costs, the team decided on:

*year-round collection on the sameday as trash collection;

*uniform service with no individual exemptions;

*encouragement for residents to reduce their trash levels by switching to a mini-can or to fewer cans when practical;

*promotion of source reduction alternatives and details of the new service; and

*the capability to set out extra volumes (beyond a standard capacity) for an extra charge.

Four container sizes and collection frequencies were identified:

*bi-weekly with 60-gallon roll carts;

*bi-weekly with 32-gallon cans, but with a 60-gallon option;

*bi-weekly with 60-gallon roll carts linked with reducing recyclables collection frequency (bi-weekly vs. the current weekly schedule); and

*weekly with 60-gallon roll carts.

The cost of collecting residential mixed paper was added into the weekly option analysis because of residential mixed paper price increases and regional mill capacity expansions.

Residential rates in nearby communities increased by between $1.50 to $5.00 monthly. However, since these programs had different features and cost accounting methods, Tigard couldn't base a rate on their charges.

Instead, they estimated the incremental costs evaluating alternative program features and cost ranges. Now, the city could calculate a realistic monthly cost and a rate based on the service being provided city-wide by a single collector using fully capitalized equipment.

Then the city had to take into account that three haulers would be providing the service and sharing the customers. Rather than buy new, the haulers could retrofit their equipment which also could be used to provide services in other areas they serve.

The costs were estimated using

*the number of and cost for drivers for the new routes at assumed collection efficiency levels (based on average drive-bys per day);

*the allocation of the company's overhead costs to handle incremental increases in administrative demands;

*the number of and cost for trucks, based on assumed collection efficiencies and assumptions on truck purchase price, debt financing costs, and amortization periods;

*the cost and number of roll carts,

*the cost/tip fee for material processing and marketing based on assumed material recovery levels and available facilities;

*the money saved by not collecting or disposing yard debris;

*increased costs to provide promotion and education; and

*franchise fees paid to the city and a reasonable profit.

The Decision In February and April 1994, the city council considered their options. At the same time, the staff held a series of meetings with four Citizen Involvement Teams (CITs) and through special meetings with tenant associations and other interest groups.

The franchised waste haulers were kept informed of the analysis' results and remained actively involved throughout the decision-making process.

In early 1994, the residential monthly rate for weekly collection of a 32-gallon can was $13.10. With the added yard debris and mixed paper service, residential rates increased by $3.40 per month - $2.90 for yard debris services and $0.50 for mixed paper collection.

The city council required franchised haulers to offer bi-weekly yard debris collection on the same day as refuse collection. Haulers were to provide 60-gallon yard debris carts for their customers and would be involved in the promotion of the new services, source reduction options and opportunities for decreasing service levels.

A class exemption is allowed for residential associations (primarily senior housing) with contract landscaping services; they are required to pay an additional $0.90 per month.

Positive Results A significant number of residents saved money by reducing service levels. In the first two years of the new program, households using mini-can (20-gallon) service increased from 343 to 834. During the same time, participation in the bi-weekly yard debris collection program increased from 63 percent to 81 percent of households. Simultaneously, recovery per drive-by increased from 65 pounds to 109 pounds per month.

Both of these factors combined resulted in a 108 percent increase in total program recovery (averaging 202 tons per month in the first period and improving to 421 tons per month after two years). The program's rate was based on an assumed yard debris recovery level of 47.5 pounds per household per month.

The new residential mixed paper collection program also showed growth, with monthly recovery increasing from 30 to 140 tons, or from 10 to 36 pounds for each household. The program's rate was based on an assumed monthly mixed paper recovery level of seven pounds per household.

Linking residential mixed paper collection with yard debris collection helped Tigard successfully sell the new services and their costs.

For residents who continued at the 32-gallon service level, the rate increase was 26 percent. Those who reduced service levels to a 20-gallon can each week, paid $14.25 per month, but they received a 100 percent increase in container capacity.

Rather than use the 32-gallon refuse container and 14-gallon red bin weekly, they now could set out 20 gallons of refuse weekly, 60 gallons of yard debris bi-weekly and 28 gallons of recyclables and residential mixed paper weekly - 70 percent more service in terms of container capacity.

Community Response In the first three months, Tigard received 50 complaints - only a fraction of the 6,800 residential customer base. Since then, only about 10 customers a year complain.

Tigard officials feel that involving the decision makers and CIT early in the process contributed to an overall positive response, especially in reducing the impact of increased rates.

Also, Tigard contacted landscapers and others potentially impacted by the changes to help them understand how their existing activities could be coordinated with the new service.

Initially, the city's haulers and drivers were concerned that they might not be needed because they didn't have any experience with fully- or semi-automated collection. However, after one to two months of use, operators became supportive.

The city council, too, was at odds with the new services because it felt "forced" to begin collecting yard waste. Pairing residential mixed paper collection with yard waste kept the council from delaying the decision.

In the first few months of program roll-out, the council also was pressured to reconsider individual exemptions; however, it deferred the decision to allow more time for the program to mature. In the last two years, the council has not substantially changed the services.

Although the city offered the exemption to as many as 500 residents in associations, only 300 have applied for it. Less yard wastes has been dumped on to greenbelts from residents whose backyards border these areas, and no other illegal dumping has been noted by city crews.

How The Planning Paid Off Initial material recovery and program costs have fallen within the projected ranges. After two years, yard debris and residential mixed paper recovery have exceeded conservative estimates. One year following the service start-up, residential and commercial rates increased slightly to meet an agreed rate of return for the haulers.

This increase was linked to two factors: changing market conditions and recyclable prices; and the timing of the yard debris cart set-up and distribution. If the service had been started earlier in the year to cover the one-time cost of cart set-up, labeling and distribution, the adopted rate increase would have been adequate.

During 1995, plastic bottles and aerosol cans were added to the curbside recycling program without any cost adjustment.

One unforeseen benefit was discovered after a major windstorm blew through town in December 1995: Rather than performing special collections to remove windblown debris, as was done in other communities, Tigard instructed residents to gradually include those materials in the yard debris cart. This saved money, and residents benefit more fully from the service.

Now, other municipalities in Washington County are patterning their yard debris programs and rate adjustments on Tigard's example, and through coordination with Washington County, other jurisdictions are adopting similar residential mixed paper collection programs.

Types of refuse trucks: three haulers each with mixed assortment. Residential: nine to ten trucks, Peterbilt White and Crane Carrier automated/semi-automated side loaders and Chevy top kicks with Heil, Leach bodies. Commercial: front loaders, rear loaders and roll-off trucks and Peterbilt, Mack White with EZ Pack, Able, Wayne bodies. Recycling trucks: Freight-liner International, Crane Carrier and custom design.

Containers: Otto, Rehrig and Americart in 20-, 35-, 60- and 90-gallon sizes.

Customers: 9,680 residential, 1,150 multi-family, commercial, industrial

Employees: approximately 25

Services: recycling, construction and demolition debris removal and recycling, business and industry waste collection and yard debris collection.

Local tipping fees: $75/ton at Metro facilities; most is long-hauled 125 miles to Columbia Ridge.

Interesting events and notes:

*A couple of years ago, a Pride Disposal customer (a married couple) asked the company to stop a load before it went to the transfer station. They sifted through five tons of refuse for 14 hours before they recovered the two-carat diamond ring that had been in their family for generations.

*The haulers have all noted that the community is growing very fast and the infrastructure has a hard time keeping pace. Consequently, traffic and weather are increasingly delaying collection time, resulting in lost efficiencies.